Derdo and Laila

The two Finnish girls were younger than the rest of us kids. They were fostered out with our neighbours while their parents in Finland fought the Red Army invading their country. Hosting refugee kids from countries involved in the First World War was routine in some smaller countries of Europe that had succeeded in maintaining neutrality, offering safe havens to children endangered by war elsewhere. During and after WWI our community hosted ‘Wiener-children’ from Austria, and later from 1939 and onwards, Finland was forced to send large numbers of children to safety in Sweden and Denmark.

Although they learned to speak Danish in no time, Derdo and Laila played mostly with each other, rarely with us. When they did come over, they went straight for our double swing-set. Swinging back and forth in unison, they chanted “Derdo and Laila Lassiman Suomi Finland,” over and over. We understood it was their way to hang on to their identity and origin.

Soon afterwards we, local Danish kids, became refugees in our own country when the Wehrmacht (German Army) confiscated our homes for their own use.


Years later I attended an international conference in Helsinki. On the first conference-day, Finland’s National Bank invited participants to an elaborate reception in late afternoon.


I arrived late, and everyone sat politely eying the food without sampling, waiting for the bank director’s speech. I chose a vacant chair between some young Americans and three young Finish women who worked at the reception counter. Soon the conversation drowned out the chords of Sibelius’s Finlandia. Two of the women began to tease the Americans, pretending to give good advice about where to go for dinner. “No better place in town, they said, then than TFC near the Hilton Hotel. I struck up a conversation in (my best, imperfect) Swedish, with the third Finnish woman at our table, asking her if Lassiman was a common last name in Finland. I told her about the little refugee girls of my childhood. The third woman then turned to the others, talking in Swedish (Finland is, or certainly was at that time, a bilingual country, using both Finnish and Swedish as official languages). She told them that I understood they were having fun fooling the American guests about dinner options in town.

The two immediately changed their tune, suddenly dispensing excellent dinner advice, and the conversation turned to the hard recent history of Finland, first having a war with Stalin’s Russia foisted upon them that left them war-torn. Subsequently they were forced to pay (forced by Russia and its western Allies!) massive reparations to Soviet Russia.